Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Asana as an Exercise in Not-doing

           We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
           But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.
           We turn clay to make a vessel;
           But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.
           We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
           And it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends.
           Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what is not.
                                                                                     Laozi, Dao De Jing, trans. Arthur Waley When Laozi wrote these lines*, he probably wasn't thinking about yoga practice, but I think that the spirit of these lines aptly describe productive asana practice. Over the last few years, I have increasingly come to feel that a productive, sustainable asana practice is as much about not-doing as it is about doing, as much about surrender as it is about effort. For me, this is definitely true of forward bends. And I suspect that it applies to backbends as well. Consider forward bends. As a beginning yogi who could barely touch my toes, I was told that the secret to progressing in forward bends lay in lengthening the hamstrings and/or extending the spine and making it "straight" ("find the backbend in the forward bend" was an instruction I heard a lot). From a purely bio-mechanical point of view, these instructions might make sense... well, maybe not: I could never (and still can't) see how a spine can possibly be absolutely "straight" in a forward bend. If you look at a picture in Light on Yoga of Mr. Iyengar in Paschimottanasana, you will see that his spine is NOT completely straight (and I don't see the backbend in the forward bend either). I don't remember how Sharath's spine looked in Paschimottasana on the Primary Series chart, but I suspect it's not absolutely straight either. But all of this is neither here nor there. The point I want to make is this: Whatever the merits of these instructions are on a purely bio-mechanical level, they are ultimately of limited use, and may even be counter-productive in helping the practitioner progress in his/her asana practice. For one, lengthening the hamstrings suggests lengthening against some kind of resistance: The image is of a sort of tug of war between one's will-power/strength and one's hamstrings. Carried to its logical conclusion, this instruction leads people to unconsciously tug or yank on their hamstrings in an effort to get deeper into the forward bend. This might not be so harmful in standing forward bends, where gravity is helping one into the posture, but continually doing this in seated forward bends puts one at risk of hurting the hamstrings, especially the relatively fragile hamstring attachments.  In addition, practitioners may also feel discouraged by what they see as limited progress in forward-bending postures caused by what they perceive to be a lack of length in their hamstrings. More importantly, as Kino pointed out at her recent Chicago workshop, focusing exclusively on the hamstrings neglects the fact that a forward bend involves not only the hamstrings, but the entire back side of the body (consider the meaning of paschimottasana, "intense west/back side pose"). In order to do a forward bend effectively, one has to bring as much of the back body as possible into the picture, not just the hamstrings. How to do this? These are Kino's suggestions: (1) In standing forward bends, ground through the four corners of the feet. In seated forward bends, ground through the sit bones. At the same time, in poses like paschimottanasana, continue to "ground" through the four corners of the feet (imagine there is actually a ground to ground through). (2) Engage the bandhas. In particular, focus on the drawing in of uddiyana bandha during the exhale. When one regularly does (1) and (2) in practice, the spine will naturally unfold into the forward bend over time. One thing that might immediately catch your attention here is that Kino says nothing about the hamstrings. Nothing about working to lengthen the hamstrings or to make the spine "straight." What this suggests to me is that forward-bending is as much about not-doing as it is about doing. To be sure, we need to do a certain amount of work (ground through the feet, engage the bandhas). But in my (humble) opinion, there is a sense in which the main part of the "work" of forward bending is not "done" by us. In grounding through the feet and sit-bones and engaging the bandhas, we are not actively pushing or pulling ourselves into the forward bend: We are only preparing and setting the conditions for the forward bend to unfold naturally. The deep forward bend for which we yearn will occur when it occurs; the most we can do is to set the stage for it by doing the necessary preparation. Any additional doing on our part will only get in the way of the posture's natural unfolding. Or, to use Laozi's imagery: Any additional turning of the clay or building into the space within the vessel will only make the vessel less able to do its work as a vessel. All of this brings to mind something that I once heard Eddie Modestine say: "I try as a teacher to get out of the way of the yoga." I wonder if something like this is what he had in mind? I hope I'll get a chance to ask him one day. I can't say as much about back-bending. For some reason (probably because I have been working on the primary series much longer than on the second series), I always find that I can speak more coherently and at greater length about forward bends than about backbends. But if my experience so far with kapotasana (and the backbends leading up to it in second series) is any indication, it seems to me that a similar dynamic occurs in backbending. There are certain things that we can do to prepare and set the stage for the deepest expression of the posture to unfold (I have in mind such actions as internally rotating the thighs, drawing the sternum towards the ceiling, etc.). But the posture itself will unfold when it unfolds. Any additional pushing on our part will be to no avail, and might even be counter-productive and harmful. I suspect that a similar balance between doing and not-doing also applies to productive arm-balancing. But I know even less about arm-balancing, so I probably shouldn't venture to talk about how and whether this doing-not-doing dynamic applies in arm-balancing. If you have any thoughts about this, I'll love to hear them.    *This is not, strictly speaking, correct. As with many ancient texts, nobody really knows exactly who wrote the Dao De Jing. But it has traditionally been attributed to Laozi.                


  1. Instead of struggling to stretch the spine and the hamstring simultaneously and getting frustrated about not being able to accomplish both, my teacher suggests bending the legs as much as needed so that the spine gets some stretching without fighting the legs. And instead of thinking about straightening the spine it's better to think about lengthening the spine.

    The whole idea behind Yin yoga is all about non-doing/Daoism - holding a seated stretching pose for so long that the muscles finally give up their grips and allow the other connective tissues to relax and lengthen.

    Deep breaths also help reduce muscular over-engagement.

    OMG I really want to discuss about these issues further in my blog :)

  2. Interesting way of looking at these issues. Yes, bending the knees is a good option. I also forgot about yin yoga :-) I look forward to reading your thoughts about these issues on your blog.

    P.S. I'm so glad you can read this post, even though the margins and paragraphing are all out of whack (talk about misalignment:-)).

  3. This is interesting Nobel, it gets me thinking about it, and funny enough I notice that after hearing so many things and listening to many teachers it is what I am doing, engaging the bandhas and going forward, kind of letting the hamstrings just be... perhaps i have always let them just be because they always hurt so much that the idea of pushing was out of the question, maybe that had something to do with it. I appreciate the post, the path of the middle way is certainly always the best approach.